1. Rail traffic for the week ending December 24 showed strong gains, with carloads up by 11.9% and intermodal volume up by 22.9% compared to the same week last year. On a year-to-date (YTD) basis for 51 weeks in 2011, carloads are above last year's count by 2.2% and intermodal volume is 5.5% ahead of the 2010 level. Some of the leading weekly and YTD gains in carload volume have been for lumber (30.1% weekly and 8.8% YTD), motor vehicles (23.2% and 9.7%) and petroleum products (36.4% and 11%), which reflects the underlying growth in the construction, manufacturing and energy sectors.
2. The American Staffing Association's Staffing Index of temporary hiring activity reached a year-to-date high of 93 for the week ending December 18, which was the highest weekly index level since last year at this time. In contrast, the ASA Staffing Index was only at 80 and 81 in the comparable weeks in the previous years of 2008 and 2009.
3. The National Association of Realtor's November Pending Home Sales Index reached its highest level in 19 months going back to July 2009 when the index was artificially boosted when buyers rushed to beat the deadline to qualify for the federal government's home buyer tax credit.
4. The Labor Department reported today that the four-week moving average for initial claims fell to a three and-a-half year low of 375,000 for the week ending December 24, and the four-week moving average for continuing claims fell to 3,598,750, the lowest since September 2008, more than three years ago.
5. The 30-year fixed mortgage rate average rose by 4 basis points to 3.95% this week, still incredibly low by historical standards, and probably a factor in the rise in pending home sales.
6. Florida home sales in November showed signs of an improving real estate market in the Sunshine State, with increased sales of 11.4% compared to last year, and median prices stabilizing at the same level as a year ago at around $130,000.